President Obama could hardly have struck more wrong notes in his immigration speech yesterday if he had attacked a piano with a buzzsaw. For me, the most egregious dissonance emerged with the sentence: “Being an American is not a matter of blood or birth, it’s a matter of faith.”
Ed generously suggests the following:
We know what Obama meant in this passage — a similarity to those who have expressed the notion that they were Americans before ever setting foot in the US, thanks to their love of liberty.
But I am decreasingly sure that Obama means these commonly-understood things when he uses such weird formulations. Obama has real trouble expressing American ideas in the terms the average American would actually use. Most Americans are, I think, comfortable with both the concept of Americanness and the significance of faith. What Obama did in his speech was blend the two in a hortatory speech – not, in other words, an academic seminar-type venue – in a way no American I’ve ever known or seen would have.
There is still, for one thing, a very strong sense among Americans that, when discussing the big issues of human life, “faith” is something you have in God, or at least in a higher power or some immanent reservoir of goodness. Even those who don’t have such faith nevertheless use the word “faith” to signify it.
Of course we also use “faith” to talk about ordinary, non-transcendent reliance, on things like gravity, or the banks we keep our money in, or the capacities of the people we love to overcome their problems. But clearly, in the context of his immigration speech, Obama was referring to an ideal; a large abstraction. In that context, when Americans speak of faith, we are speaking of the religious, transcendent, or metaphysical.
In pairing “faith” and Americanness, Obama made a vague, impressionistic association that tells us much about him; and one of the chief things is that he simply doesn’t think like an American. Naturally, there are American nationals who posit the kind of association he implies here, but when they do so they are not expressing the quintessentially American idea. They are speaking theoretically and proposing analyses for further consideration.
This is common in academia, where the link Obama suggests – of Americanness with the concept of “faith” – is implied through an analytical progression: Americans are religious; they believe strongly in their religions; they believe strongly in their national identity; therefore, their national identification is essentially a sort of religious belief. It has been a long time since an academic could wander through this syllogistic sequence without implying that it represents irrationality on the part of Americans – and once that premise is sneaked in, the syllogist is off the hook for making his own case rationally. The whole discussion becomes a sticky goo of impressions and vague associations, so that you can wind up saying “Being American is a matter of faith,” and your auditors can all go off and interpret that however they want.
But Americans don’t think being American is a matter of faith. We distinguish between faith and national identity for a very good reason: because we’ve been indoctrinated to do so from birth. And neither faith nor Americanness is such a vague concept for us that we accept a careless melding of the two in our minds. Faith is faith, and Americanness is Americanness, and defining them involves two separate propositions.
Americanness, as Ed says, is largely about honoring the rule of law. And that means that being American has a very specific, rationally- and materially-defined meaning. We might think of a foreigner as being “an American at heart” because of his political and cultural orientation, but we wouldn’t call him an “American.” Because he’s not one. This kind of literalism irritates people of a certain personality type (many of whom are on the left, politically), but it’s the same mindset that makes us passionate about having the law observed to the letter, which in turn is directly connected to keeping our civil liberties safe.
Being American is not an aspirational state of mind that transcends temporal political boundaries. That particular concept is most familiar to international socialists. It is emphatically not a concept used by average Americans to describe their national identity or character. America is a geographic entity, the 50 United States; the concept of America is firmly bounded in American minds by the parameters of the nation-state; we don’t aspire to somehow induce Americanness to ooze across borders – and we certainly have no intrinsic national aspiration to do away with borders entirely. We are classic nation-state nationalists in that sense. Our exceptionalism comes not from any redefinition of nationhood, but from what we propose to do as a nation: most specifically, the liberties we propose to guarantee.
We may advise others to adopt consensual forms of government and cultural liberality, because we have a universalist perspective on their desirability. But it’s an academic’s or demagogue’s tendentious conclusion – not a reflection of what Americans ourselves intend – to say that in doing so we want to turn them into “Americans.”
The straightforward literalism of the average American’s take on this is much better reflective of what Americanness means. We prize liberty, and we’ll tell you about it, but if you embrace it that doesn’t make you “American” in any meaningful way. It makes you a liberty-loving person of your own nationality. If you want to literally be American – great! We love you, man. Fill out these forms, learn the language, take a test, take an oath.
Finally, there is something a bit creepy about saying “being American is a matter of faith” – something that evokes the national-religious aspects of Italian Fascism, German National Socialism, Soviet Stalinism, and Maoism. It is extremely informative about Obama, and presumably his speechwriting staff, that their ears didn’t catch this off-kilter resonance. I think Obama thought these words would resonate with traditional Americans. In the end, that merely reinforces the perception that he knows such Americans only through the rarefied prism of academic interpretations by third parties.
Cross-posted at The Optimistic Conservative.